01 May 2009
Hans Holzer, who passed over to the other side aged 89, was a celebrated "ghost-hunter" and author of numerous books about the paranormal, including Murder at Amityville (1979) â€“ the basis for the film Amityville II: The Possession (1982), the low-budget sequel to The Amityville Horror (1979).
Holzer described himself as an academic parapsychologist and took his calling extremely seriously. There were, he explained, three "dirty words" in his vocabulary: belief, disbelief and supernatural. "Belief is the uncritical acceptance of something you can't prove," he explained. "I work on evidence".
He therefore dismissed the existence of angels and regarded the world's religions as corporations that make large profits out of scaring the "hell" out of their followers. He himself gave up celebrating Christmas after establishing "beyond a shadow of a doubt" that Jesus was born on October 3, 7BC, and stopped attending church when the local minister turned down his offer to contribute to a seminar on world religions. "If it weren't for parapsychology," Holzer complained, "religion wouldn't have a leg to stand on."
But he was firm in his belief in ghosts (people who do not realise that they are dead and are therefore "confused as to their real status"), and was convinced that extraterrestrials are abducting human beings to learn about life on earth. He also believed in reincarnation (he recalled being present at the "Battle" of Glencoe in 1692) and was a Wiccan high priest, initiated "three times" into the pagan religion.
Holzer embarked on his most famous investigation in 1977, following reports about a family who claimed to have been terrorised by paranormal phenomena after moving into a sprawling colonial mansion in Amityville, Long Island, in 1975. The house had been the scene of a grisly multiple murder a little over a year before, when 23-year-old Ronnie DeFeo went from room to room shooting his parents and his four siblings in their beds.
Holzer visited the house in company with a medium who claimed to have "channelled" the spirit of an angry Shinnecock Indian by the name of Chief Rolling Thunder, who informed her that the house stood on an ancient Indian burial ground. Meanwhile Holzer took photographs of bullet holes from the murders, around which mysterious halos appeared. The murderer, he suggested, had become possessed by the Indian chief.
There were at least two problems with this theory. The local historical society disputed the idea that there had ever been a burial ground at the site, and descendants of the Montaukett Indians pointed out that they, and not the Shinnecocks, had been the original inhabitants of Amityville. But Holzer was undeterred, and as well as his "non-fiction" account went on to publish two novels based on the story.
Hans Holzer was born in Vienna on January 26 1920 and developed an interest in the supernatural from his uncle Henry, who told him ghost stories. He studied archaeology, ancient history and numismatics at the University of Vienna but left Austria for New York with his family in 1938, just before the Anschluss. After studying Japanese at Columbia University, he tried to make a living in showbusiness, writing sketches for a short-lived comedy revue and an even shorter-lived musical, Hotel Excelsior.
Holzer returned to his studies, taking a master's degree in comparative religion and claiming a doctorate in parapsychology at an elusive London College of Applied Science (not, it appears, London, England). He went on to teach parapsychology at the New York Institute of Technology and embarked on his long career as a writer and "ghost hunter" (the title of his first book, published in 1963).
In search of his quarry Holzer travelled the world, uncovering a 19th-century admiral in New Hampshire, "left behinds" in Connecticut and a haunted train in Switzerland. Not once did he feel afraid: "After all," he told Leonard Nimoy on the television series In Search Of, "a ghost is only a fellow human being in trouble."
Holzer's field research, usually conducted with a "trance" medium and a Polaroid camera, led him to the conclusion that "the other side" (a phrase he is said to have invented) is very like this side, only with more red tape. The dead who wish to return to earth have to get permission from "spirit guides", then wait in a queue and register with a clerk.
Holzer, a vegan from his early 40s, wrote well over 100 books on ghosts and other paranormal and occult phenomena, such as Ghosts I've Met (1965), Yankee Ghosts (1966), and The Great British Ghost Hunt (1975). Other books dealt with witches and warlocks, UFOs and extraterrestrials, psychic healing and hypnosis. His 13 novels included The Psychic World of Bishop Pike (1970).
He was a regular on television chat shows and even hosted his own show, Ghost Hunter.
In 1962 he married Countess Catherine Buxhoeveden, a direct descendant of Catherine the Great and an artist inspired by the "energy of the spirits who visit her at night". The marriage was dissolved.
Hans Holzer, who died on April 26, is survived by two daughters. Through one of them, he has since sent his heartfelt "thanks" to The Daily Telegraph for its interest.